Federal Water Tap, March 19: Legislative Update, Water Bills Galore

Yesterday Barbara Boxer (D-California) and Senate colleague David Vitter (R-Louisiana) submitted a new Water Resources Development Act.

Last session of Congress, Boxer circulated a draft version of the bill, but it was not introduced. The act is a major piece of legislation. It authorizes billions in projects for the Army Corps of Engineers and sets policy guidelines. Some hurdles for the act’s next iteration include a congressional ban on earmarks (a common tactic in past versions) and a $US 60 billion Army Corps project backlog.

The Environment and Public Works Committee will consider the bill on Wednesday March 20. If you love to watch government at work, the markup session will be webcast live at http://epw.senate.gov at 10:00 AM Eastern.

Water Infrastructure Now Public-Private Partnership Act
Last Wednesday, a House Appropriations subcommittee held a hearing on financing water infrastructure. The next day Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) introduced a bill to entice private dollars to invest in public water projects.

“I am hopeful that this program will provide a way to maintain our investments in important water infrastructure projects even as we face severe fiscal restraints by creating a greater opportunity for private interests to come to the table,” Durbin said, from the Senate floor.

Investors will become partners, not owners. The bill would prohibit the privatization of federal assets and would require a study that proves the project has a public benefit.

However, municipal water utilities will be disappointed – the bill focuses on infrastructure under the purview of the Army Corps. No more than 15 flood control or navigation projects will be selected for this pilot program.

Mississippi River Navigation Sustainment Act
The drought last year turned heads in the Midwest, especially of those who rely on the Mississippi River to transport cargo. An estimated $US 7 billion economic loss from low river levels will do that. Record floods the year before had a similar catalyzing effect.

So what to do to ensure a complex river system delivers maximum benefits? Study it. This bill, another with Durbin’s imprimatur, would require the Army Corps to study how to manage the Mississippi River Basin in extreme weather so that navigation is more reliable and flood risks are reduced. There are also provisions for more data collection from river gauges and a pilot program for habitat restoration.

Great Lakes Water Protection Act
Senate Bill 571, a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) and the very busy Durbin, sets a deadline for ending sewage flows into the Great Lakes. Cities along the lakes would have until 2033 to stop sewage leaks and overflows or face fines of up to $US 100,000 for each day they violate the act. Billions of gallons of raw sewage are dumped in the lakes each year.

The money would go into a new Great Lakes Cleanup Fund that would improve water quality through environmental restoration and, somewhat circularly, better sewage systems.

Hydropower Improvement Act
It is a small, but fruitful step, they say. A group of senators from the Pacific Northwest, the center of U.S. hydropower production, wants to capture wasted kinetic energy from flowing water. The bill aims to increase hydroelectric capacity at small, existing facilities by simplifying the permitting process.

“Generating hydropower from water in irrigation canals, conduits, and behind existing dams is the low-hanging fruit the U.S. should seize as it moves toward a low-carbon economy,” said co-sponsor Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The bill also calls for the Department of Energy to study how pumped storage – a method of energy storage in which two reservoirs are operated in tandem – could bring about wider use of wind and solar power. Its sponsor, Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), introduced a version of this bill last session of Congress, without success.

Federal Water Tap is a weekly digest spotting trends in U.S. government water policy. To get more water news, follow Circle of Blue on Twitter and sign up for our newsletter.

Author: Brett Walton  is a Seattle-based reporter for Circle of Blue. He writes our Federal Water Tap, a weekly breakdown of U.S. policy. Interests: Southwest, Pacific Northwest, Pricing, Infrastructure.

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